Zimmerman and Self-Defense

I mentioned the George Zimmerman trial over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in my recent blog post. Now that the verdict is in, I feel it incumbent upon me to digest the outcome for you. My intent here is not to pass judgment on the jury’s decision one way or the other. Rather, it is to answer the question: What, as students of self-defense, can we learn from this Not Guilty verdict?

The first question that comes to mind is, What exactly was George Zimmerman found not guilty of? According to newspaper accounts, the jury acquitted Zimmerman of 2nd degree Murder and Manslaughter charges. Why? Because they could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

To put it another way, the prosecution failed to establish in the jury’s minds beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman did not act in self-defense.

In other words, the defense succeeded in planting in the jury’s minds the possibility that, at the moment he pulled the trigger, George Zimmerman might have been acting in self-defense.

So, here you have a situation in which the ostensible aggressor, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder charges, even though by all accounts he instigated the contact with Trayvon Martin that ultimately concluded with Zimmerman firing the fatal shot that killed the teenager.
At the risk of seeming too clinical about a tragic situation, I would ask my students to consider that what Zimmerman’s trial actually proves is this: self-defense situations are fluid by nature.

Unlike film media where the good guys and the bad guys are by design clearly distinguishable, real people do not wear signs (graphic t-shirt slogans notwithstanding). They do not present us with dramatic film trailers of their daily social transactions in easily digestible patterns that show them to be good or bad in light of a given community standard of moral behavior. Whatever else we might conclude about George Zimmerman and his verdict, about Florida’s self-defense laws, or about Trayvon Martin’s part in the entire episode, we cannot deny one thing this trial has shown us: in real life, self-defense is not so easy to define.

Well duh, I can almost hear you saying. Indeed.

And yet, as Taekwondo-ists, we may content ourselves with the fact that, because we know our art is one of self-defense, and therefore one whose skills we would not employ except in self-defense, whether of ourselves or a defenseless other who needs our help. In our minds, therefore, were we forced to act, we know we do so only because we are justified, we know we act in self-defense.

The problem is, once the situation is in the hands of judge and jury, not to mention teams of trial lawyers, the situation might not be so clear to them as it was to us when we chose to act.

In Idaho, the law dictates that an individual may act with reasonable and prudent force necessary to extinguish a threat, or the perception of a threat. Exceed what is reasonable and prudent, and you become the aggressor. (Manweiler, David, J.D.. 19 97. Unpublished research.)
So who decides how much force is reasonable and prudent?

In the actual event, you do.

In the trial, if it comes to that, the jurors do.

Everyone can imagine dire situations where the failure to act might make waiting for the police to arrive tragically moot (predatory kidnappings of children off the street come to mind.) Unless you are Batman, seeing a suspicious person walking down an alley is not one of these.  As students of Taekwondo, you must remember that physical self-defense is your last line of response, not your first. Learn not to let injuries to your pride or ego put your life and the lives of others at risk.

Do not involve yourself unnecessarily in altercations better left to Law Enforcement professionals.

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